Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adios, Marvel Heroes

If there was an MMO that I'd played over the past several years that was going to be the first to shut down, odds are good that I'd not have guessed it was Marvel Heroes.

Gazillion released the game as a steaming hot mess, but they diligently cleaned it up and made it a bright spot in the MMO world, particularly that they were at an intersection point between all of the Marvel characters, including Squirrel Girl, the new Ms. Marvel, Luke Cage, and all of the big properties (Avengers and X-Men and Fantastic Four).

But apparently things were not good in Gazillion land. You can read about the accusations of sexual misconduct, missed updates and events, and other items here over at Massively OP's article.

The game shuts down on December 31st.

But knowing Disney, they likely have a new software developer of choice. (I've read that Square Enix is likely it, but you never know with Disney.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Small Worlds

I was on SWTOR the other day, playing around with a new Jedi Shadow, when I finished up Taris and returned to the ship. There I had my latest conversation with Qyzen, and I was reminded once again about how intertwined the characters in the SWTOR universe are.

You might remember the conversation, about Qyzen and his rancor trophy. You might even remember how important the trophy meant to Qyzen. But do you remember who he worked with back then?

Qyzen mentioned it in passing, almost an offhand remark: Braden.

As in, Braden the NPC at the beginning of the Bounty Hunter story.

The more I play SWTOR, the more I'm surprised by the entanglements that the PCs, the primary NPCs, and their companions have. I realize this is by design, but Bioware didn't have to do this. They could just as easily had 8 class stories that were completely disconnected from the others, but these little intersections serve a larger purpose: that everything the PCs do is connected with each other. They are, to borrow a term from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, ta'veren.

***

But I had another case of Deja Vu when my wife and I watched an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary about Ric Flair the other day.*

No, really.

I suppose you'd never guess by my writing that in my teen years in the 80s I followed professional wrestling.** While I realize that some people had their older siblings or their friends get them interested in the (so-called) "soap opera for guys", my father was the one who introduced me to pro wrestling. When he was a boy in the 50s and early 60s, he used to ride bikes with his friends to the Cincinnati Gardens to watch wrestling there***, and he developed a love for the sport. Even though he and I would mainly talk about college basketball, I hadn't realized that he'd kept up with pro wrestling all through the years until I was cleaning up his old Mac after he passed away and discovered the WWE link at the top of his favorites.

Watching the documentary, titled "Nature Boy", was a chance to get back in touch with my youth. I'd not followed wrestling since my time at college, and the over the top drama and plotlines couldn't help but make me chuckle.****

Yes, pro wrestling certainly earns its moniker of being a "soap opera for guys". The obnoxious boasting from the wrestlers, the choreographed moves, and the so-called drama of the production was something you simply couldn't take seriously. However, as I watched the documentary from a vantage point of almost 30 years removed from following the sport, I realized just how much the pro wrestling world had impacted the design of some of these newer MMOs.

For example, here's a pic from TERA Online:

Complete with championship belt.

And now contrast it with a few classic pro wrestling stills:

The Nature Boy himself, Ric Flair.
"Wooooooooo!!" indeed.
From villains.wiki.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage on the left
and Hulk Hogan on the right. If this doesn't
scream "protect the princess, boys!"
I don't know what does. From reddit, but a
version of this is on wikipedia.org.

But a larger influence is found from the world of women's pro wrestling.

Yes, that is a thing.

When I was in college, there was GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, that hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the WWF and WCW, but was frequently relegated to Midnight on Saturday nights. But the WWE has spent a while now promoting women's wrestling, which includes Ric Flair's daughter, Charlotte:
Her dad used to enter the ring wearing
a cape/robe of his own. (From wwe.com)

And a couple of other pics:
From wwe.com.

From lethalwow.com. (No, not a World of Warcraft
site. Just sayin'.)

Now, the reason why I point to pro wrestling versus Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is that the MMA clothing is strictly practical in nature, whereas the influence of pro wrestling's undeniably sexed up outfits can be seen in ArcheAge:


My short lived Warborn. Alas that ArcheAge
has a two character limit for non-subs.

And in TERA Online:

My Castanic. What is it about "devil" characters
that people find so appealing? I suppose you could
even throw Draenei into that mix, even though
they never were corrupted.

It feels... odd... looking at pro wrestling and seeing MMOs instead. In its own way, the plotlines in pro wrestling is analogous to these newer MMOs, where story isn't quite as important as bashing people, looking good, and preening like an alpha. But I shouldn't be surprised, because pro wrestling is pop culture, and MMOs do reflect pop culture. Sure, other MMOs may not reflect it as obviously as WoW does with its quirky names and questlines, but pop culture does extend a long shadow over MMOs (and video games in general).

We may think we're playing games that are immune to or isolated from what we consider to be the larger world, but we're not. The larger world does provide at least a subconscious influence on our smaller gaming worlds, and we should pay attention to that influence. MMOs and other games (video and otherwise) reflect their times.

Even if those times include eyebrow raising wrestling outfits.





*To be perfectly honest, my wife set the DVR to record it, not me. I wasn't so sure whether I wanted to watch it, but I figured "oh hell, why not."

**More World Championship Wrestling than what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation (now called World Wrestling Entertainment, after a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Fund forced a name change). As one person in the documentary put it, the WCW was for more blue collar people who loved to watch wrestling, and the WWF was geared toward kids and teens.They operated in two completely different circles.

***As well as watch the NBA team the Cincinnati Royals, whose most famous player was Oscar Roberston. Oscar, known as The Big O, was one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the all time greats of basketball. Given that The Big O's career overlapped that of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, "Doctor J" Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, that's saying quite a bit. The Cincinnati Royals moved to Kansas City in 1971 and were renamed the Kings, and in 1985 they moved to their current location in Sacramento. For the rest of his days, my father was mad at the Royals management who basically sold off the team's best players and then used the plummeting attendance as an excuse to move.

****Okay, I guess I ought to confess one other item: during my Sophomore year at college, I got hooked on the NBC daytime soap opera Days of our Lives. (I blame my roommate at the time, who was hooked on it before me.) So, for several months I would take my lunchtime break and pull up a chair by a television set around campus to watch Days. After about 5 months' worth of shows, however, I just threw up my hands and said that the plot was way too over the top for me to find remotely enjoyable. Still, it does give me an appreciation of how much work and acting skill to keep the show going every week out of the year.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Few Minor Changes

I know, the blog looks out of date.

If that wasn't obvious before now, a short glance at the redesign that Navimie did for The Daily Frostwolf - Druid Edition shows just how ancient that this circa 2009 design is.*
There goes Navi, raising the bar for the rest of us.
(Just teasing, Navi. This is really a great redesign!)

However, I have added one item on the sidebar that I wanted to highlight: The YouTube Channels list.

Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't yet have the ability to provide the latest entry in a YouTube channel,** but I can provide the channel link itself. And while the list is small, I really want to highlight the list because I enjoy seeing the content from all of the entries.

Sure, Geek and Sundry is the only major channel present at the time of this post, but some of my fellow blogger friends have channels that need more visibility. Given that I'm not a big fan of streaming or posting my own videos, I really admire my friends for their efforts and their professionalism in their work.

***

That does bring up for me a topic that has been simmering in the background for quite a while: the evolution of how gamers share their love of gaming.***

When Souldat and I started PC back in 2009, blogging was one of the primary methods of communicating about MMOs. There were YouTube channels/videos by fans, of course, but beyond blogging and podcasting there were more commercial websites (such as Kotaku or Polygon) and software company forums. But while blogging as a primary source of gamer activity has declined, streaming and other more modern forms of social media have taken over.

Another way of looking at this is how we obtain PC games these days. The last game I had on a physical disk that didn't require me to have an online presence to either login or obtain updates (or even the game itself, even though I'd bought a copy) was Civilization IV Complete, circa 2010 or 2011. All of my other games I've purchased I had to be online to download via either the company site or a service such as Steam, or to even use the game (such as Diablo 3 or the most recent Sim City). What happened over this time? Bandwidth happened, to the tune of a big expansion of both the download speeds as well as upload speeds. That bandwidth not only makes software downloads more practical but also makes personal streaming (uploads) more practical.

However, bandwidth wasn't the only technical hurdle, it's also about the computing and graphics power a computer has. Given the leaps and bounds that processors, motherboards, and even storage has made over the past 8 years, the capacity of computers to not only handle a game and a livestream but also maintain both for a minimal drop in framerate is pretty amazing. When I started playing WoW, it was on what was then a middle of the road 32-bit Intel Core Duo that ran Vista. I could play WoW with mediocre graphics****, but playing WoW and connecting to Vent proved a bit of a stretch. I ended up pressing my work laptop into service with Vent while I played WoW on the main machine.

And automated backups.... Oh boy, would they tank your machine.*****

But within five years Intel and AMD were putting out processors that could handle all of that, plus run Chrome with a full load of tabs and extensions as well as MS Office in the background, and not blink an eye.#

Software has taken advantage of the increased power as well, with gaming/streaming built into operating systems such as Win 10 as well as other software packages.
When THAT showed up in Win 10, you know
that streaming while gaming had gone mainstream.

Finally, the rise of eSports, popularity of Netflix and Hulu, and a new generation of gamers thinking nothing of sharing and competing while streaming --a tacit acceptance of voyeurism, I suppose-- has pushed streaming completely into the mainstream.

I can check Facebook during the week and watch a FB livestream of the devs from Standing Stone playing LOTRO. Hell, just about all MMO development houses have their own regular livestreams to handle all sorts of activities from connecting with players to showing off upcoming patches.
They're everywhere. Here, on GW2's loading screen.
I guess that's another question to ask prospective
employees: "How do you feel about putting yourself
on Twitch and livestream you playing a game for hours?"

This is an entirely new environment from when I started playing WoW, and if you'd have asked me how long it would take to get to this point I'd have said --especially after the economic meltdown in 2008-- likely 2020 at minimum.

Yet here we are.

***

In all of this video oriented and immediate gratification (read: Twitter) material, blogs like this one still have a part to play. For starters, they don't take up network bandwidth at work, where employers tend to frown on a single employee hogging a lot of the bandwidth to watch whatever is on Twitch. They are also quieter and less visually distracting, unless you have a ton of GIFs on your site like some mid 90s website designs. Finally, blogs allow a blogger to take their time to put together a post.## Sure, you can write an entire vlog entry and then stand in front of a camera and recite that, but if you're like me you're constantly going back and editing even after the point when you thought you were done. And yes, I see the editing that goes on with vlogs, and it drives me bananas. Vlogging simply doesn't mesh well with my thought processes.

Neither do my thoughts mesh well with Twitter.

Who knew that Munch captured my brain on Twitter so well?
From Mentalfloss.com.

I have an unfortunate tendency to shoot my mouth off when I get agitated or otherwise emotional###, and an app such as Twitter or Snapchat is a disaster waiting to happen. So for those denizens of Twitter who can keep themselves under control at all times, more power to ya.

And while I realize that blogging isn't quite as immediate as Twitter, it is far quicker --and more relevant-- than print magazines. The nature of print means that the news is already out of date by the time it makes it to a monthly print magazine, so print magazines have not only expanded into digital formats but also focused on longer feature pieces that don't strictly fall into the news arena.

And while it's not the same for everyone, blogging feeds my addition to writing without demanding too much from me. One of these days I'd love to sit down and finish a novel --NaNoWriMo or not-- but while my chaotic life isn't helping me out at the moment I can blog.

***

Relevance or not, I still need to look into more of a major design revamp of PC.

I think the basic design orientation, having a main section for articles with side areas for other information, works fairly well. However, I think it can be done better, and in an easier to read format than what it presently is.

And yes, I need to replace the Cataclysm-era graphics with something a bit more reflective of the times. That's actually a sticking point for me, because I'd love to have newer graphics without relying upon the gif format to cycle through images like what Rades does with Orcish Army Knife. There's something appealing with what Ravanel Griffon does in Ravalation, where a different header graphic shows up every time you select a link, but I'll have to think about whether I really want to implement that. (And what graphics to choose, naturally.)
After all, what else will I do with all of these
ArcheAge screenshots?
Anyway, I think I need to solicit some ideas for improvements to the blog. (Sorry, deleting the blog won't happen.) What do you, the reader, want to see in a blog design?




*If internet years is akin to dog years, the design is 56 years old. Hell, it's older than me!

**In the officially supported widgets, at least.

***I started writing a blog post on this at least twice, only to shelve it for later. I guess later means now.

****I eventually had to replace the graphics card due to the Abominations in the Undercity proving too much to handle for our machine.

*****I discovered that much to my chagrin when I was interviewed on the Twisted Nether Blogcast. I had no idea that the automated backup that kicked in after midnight was wreaking havoc to my connection until I listened to the podcast afterward. Fimlys, Hydra, if you're reading this I'm still sorry about that.

#The popularity of smartphones --and their social media and streaming capabilities-- shouldn't be overlooked either. Sure, you don't play WoW on an Android tablet, but people livestream all the time now.

##For example, I've worked on this particular post over the course of about 10 days. I've tightened things up a bit, added some graphics, and rewrote significant portions of the body. While I try to post once a week and about 6 times a month, sometimes I have to slow down to make things just the way I like them. This also means letting other posts go ahead of posts like these.

###I used to avoid going to my oldest's track and field meets when she was in middle school precisely because I didn't want to be "that parent" in the stands. I ran track for three years in high school --yes, I know, you'd never guess it now-- and I didn't want to be the parent who tried to usurp the coaches' authority or simply be obnoxious throughout the meet. Even now, watching the high school (American) football team lose week in and week out --hey, I go to watch my kids in the marching band play at halftime-- it is really hard on me to not go bananas and bitch about all the things the kids are doing wrong. I can handle that they're physically outclassed, but not using proper technique drives me nuts.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

No Need for Coffee Today

This is what I get for focusing too much on work* during the big announcement yesterday:


Yep, that's right. Vanilla WoW is officially returning with officially sanctioned Blizzard servers.

Apparently this dropped during the Blizzcon keynote address, and for people like me who miss the pre-Cataclysm WoW, this was the announcement of the day. 

No details, which isn't a surprise, but the fact that there was an announcement** is a big thing. Blizz has finally committed to resurrecting the old Vanilla environment.

***

Aside from the announcement itself, the most interesting part was how some of the major internet outlets reported on the announcement. You can get a glimpse of that from the titles:





To say that people didn't see this coming --and even Steven Messner of PC Gaming admitted it as much when he sat down beforehand to interview Blizz' J. Allen Brack-- is a bit of an understatement.

I know I didn't.

No more than a few weeks ago, I'd commented on Shintar's Priest with a Cause that I don't buy the explanation that Blizzard doesn't have the source code. There may be technical challenges, but any decent development house keeps their source code around for versioning purposes.

But now, things are looking up.

***

The cynic in me says "Blizz must be hurting for money to bring this back", but I'm not so sure. Bobby Kotick aside, I really do believe that the Blizz people want to do this sort of thing for the fans. If it makes them money, so much the better. But still, it must be cautioned that modern MMOs are not what we're getting with Vanilla WoW. Vanilla WoW is still very much a quirky translation of the pencil and paper RPG genre into a computer screen, with items such as ammo for ranged weapons and weapon proficiency leveling coming back. If you play Old School D&D and other Old School inspired games, that might not be an issue, but for people raised on the action MMO or newer pencil and paper RPGs this might be a bit of a shock. Kind of like switching from Dragon Age: Inquisition or Witcher 3 to Baldur's Gate.

But if you're like me, I'm down with this.***

Like Shintar said, I might have to start giving Blizzard some of my money again.





*In my defense that's what I'm supposed to do while I'm at work, but like the first and second rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tourney --Men's and Women's-- I typically keep an eye out for what's going on. For some reason I thought that the big item of the day was going to be the next WoW expac and I figured I could read about that later.

**As opposed to Titan, which was never officially announced.

***Other Old School MMOs, such as D&D Online or LOTRO, ought to be cheering this move by Blizzard. As more new fans are exposed to the original Vanilla WoW, they will likely be checking out other old MMOs.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Engagement and Immersion for all to Hear

There was another recent newspaper article about video game voice actors, this time in the Washington Post. It talks quite a bit about the difficulty in voice acting for video games, which are frequently more demanding than for animated shows for television and movies.

For me, one paragraph stood out: “They keep saying, ‘Games are different,’ ” said J.B. Blanc, a well-known voice actor and director who has worked with Burch several times. “But that’s no longer true. Because games want to be movies, and movies want to be games. These are basically 100-hour-long movies.”

When you add on all the takes, retakes, and variables in potentially different outcomes from a player made decision, the sheer volume of hours spend performing voice work is pretty immense.

But the result of a well performed voice role is pretty much instant immersion.

***

Some gamers really identify certain voices with specific roles, often to the point where some actors simply are the role they play.

A prime example of this is Jennifer Hale, known in MMO circles as the voice of the SWTOR female trooper, Jennifer has had a lot of prime voice roles in video games. But Jennifer is likely best known as the voice of Fem Shep, the female Shepard PC in the Mass Effect Trilogy. Okay, it's not much of a stretch to admit that to a lot of gamers Jennifer is Fem Shep, as this Sneaky Zebra video celebrates:



And not to be outdone, here's the dramatic reading by Male Shep Mark Meer:



But on the flip side of that is that a game can be ruined by poor voice acting.

The first Destiny had its share of problems, but Peter Dinklage's lack of inspired performance as Ghost was --while not the largest problem-- certainly amplified due to it being an issue with a speaking role. When you get called out in a Smosh Games Honest Trailer, that's not a good place to be in:



Still, that such an accomplished actor had difficulty in a voice acting role underscores the importance of getting the role right.

***

If there's one advance in MMOs over the last 5-7 years that has pushed the genre forward, I'd have to say it's the fully acted questing cutscenes. Yes, it makes MMOs more expensive to develop, but after having had expanded voice roles in SWTOR and other new MMOs these past few years, it's kind of hard to go back and pick up an MMOs that doesn't have it.

Working my way through ArcheAge, I had to take a break for a while and go back to SWTOR just to hear voices in quest cutscenes again. Sure, the graphics of ArcheAge are fantastic, but I miss the voice actors that bring a world alive. And I understand that ArcheAge is tapping into a JRPG tradition in its quest cutscene presentation, but it just doesn't feel the same without that vocal immersion that I've grown accustomed to.*

Going forward, however, I'm not certain whether a new MMO will even bother to try to fully voice act the game. Even though voice actors aren't paid a lot for their efforts, fully voice acting an MMO can balloon the game's development cost. The payment model for MMOs going forward --very few will brave the subscription only model and instead rely upon F2P + cash shops for funding-- doesn't help a lot either. This is a shame, because the one MMO I do subscribe to is SWTOR, and a large reason why is the immersion that voice acting provides.





*Even a game that is 10 years old, such as The Witcher, has quest cutscenes with voice acting. Of course, Bioware had been doing that for much longer --KOTOR, anyone?-- but even ignoring Bioware's output the concept of voice acting in video games is much older than SWTOR itself. And while Age of Conan had voice acting for the main questline's quests, SWTOR was the first MMO to fully integrate voice acting with the game. Unfortunately, the lack of WoW level success for SWTOR meant that the the most recent expacs have entered into this hybrid area; it's better than Age of Conan, but still it's a step back.

Friday, October 27, 2017

And I Thought I was in a Long Running Campaign

Seriously.

There's a group out there that's been playing D&D since 1982. That in and of itself is a bit unusual, but I know of other groups with quite a bit of longevity.

But the same campaign, since 1982? Nope. This group is very much a rarity.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Free Expacs from SWTOR

Yeah, I figured that'd catch your attention.

In celebration of the release of the original KOTOR on XBox One, they're offering the first two expacs for SWTOR, Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan, for free to people who never purchased them yet.

The offer goes through November 6th, and you need to login to the SWTOR website and redeem the code "REVANRETURNS" to obtain the expacs.

Also, they've got a KOTOR inspired swoop available using the code "KOTORSPEEDER" for the same length of time.

Here's the news post highlighting these little goodies.

It goes without saying that I've been making sure that the mini-Reds know about this, even the oldest, so that they don't let this opportunity pass them by.